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Will a new program increase access to college? Framingham and Milford students say it does.

October 15, 2021
By Zane Razzaq

Will a new program increase access to college? Framingham and Milford students say it does.

Elizabeth Avadanian just began her sophomore year at Framingham High School, but she's already racking up credits for college.

Avadanian, 15, is among about 170 students enrolled in the MetroWest Scholars Early-Start Program, a team effort between Framingham State University and MassBay Community College. Students in Milford or Framingham public schools are exposed to in-demand professional fields, such as business, education and criminology as they take college-level courses for free.

For Avadanian, the program has given her a glimpse of college.

"All my teachers would be like: 'For college, you have to prepare this and this and do great in this,'" said Avadanian. "Actually being in the courses — it's helpful to know what college is like compared to high school."

According to program numbers, 71% of the students would be the first in their family to go to college. Nearly 40% of them are English language learners, and a little over 75% are economically disadvantaged.

In all, the students currently in the program have earned 395 college credits.

Last fall, 50% earned at least four credits, a handful earned eight, and one even earned 12. By beginning early, students are on a clear course to complete 15 to 30 credits before high school graduation.

The program was launched in 2019 after the MetroWest College Planning Collaborative, a joint college access initiative founded five years earlier by FSU and MassBay, won a three-year $600,000 grant from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation.

It will soon expand to include Waltham Public Schools.

Only 30% of low-income students in Framingham High's Class of 2012 completed a post-secondary degree or credential by 2019. And while many factors explain why economically disadvantaged students do not complete college at the same rate as peers with similar academic readiness, cost is an enormous barrier.

A new report published last month by the nonprofit organization uAspire analyzed 2,253 financial aid offers from four-year public and private colleges and universities in Massachusetts sent to high school seniors with estimated family contributions of zero. Even for students with the greatest financial need, grants only covered a small portion of the cost and therefore students would need to pay thousands of dollars to enroll, according to the study.

Programs like MetroWest Scholars Early-Start, where students can tackle a significant amount of their college coursework while still in high school, can help forge a path to degree completion and beyond, say school officials.

"If we are able to help students complete somewhere between three to six courses here at Milford High School that can be transferred to a public university or college, we can make a significant contribution to them overcoming the affordability factor," said Joshua Otlin, principal at Milford High School Principal.

MetroWest Scholars Early-Start makes one crucial tweak from similar programs in that it begins in middle school.

The jumpstart allows students to not have to ponder college decisions on their own — a "daunting task" that keeps some from pursuing post-secondary education, said Colleen Coffey, executive director of the MetroWest College Planning Collaborative.

"It's the right time to do this — when young people and their parents are still connected and making decisions together," said Coffey.

Outreach starts with seventh-graders — reaching out to underrepresented students and letting them know they can do college while still in high school. By the spring of eighth grade, students and families have to commit to the program. It is open access, meaning any student can enroll.

College classes start right away, with an interdisciplinary studies class taught during the summer before ninth grade. As freshmen, students take a cultural anthropology class. The course's design provides a large number of reading and writing assignments, helping students build the higher-level writing abilities that college coursework requires, according to a report.

By 10th grade, students will pick a specific field to pursue and dig deeper into a career track. They'll then complete another one-credit class in that discipline.

Otlin said the program takes place during regular school hours to avoid conflicts with employment or participation with fine arts or athletics.

"The classes are embedded into the school day," he said.

In April, the statewide think-tank MassINC published a report that found early college programs can help improve a student's chance of pursuing a degree but that more funding and program expansion are needed to ensure that minority students take part.

MassINC's report, which spotlighted MetroWest Scholars Early-Start, found that in 2019, more than three-quarters of students who took part in such programs enrolled in college within six months of graduation, in either two-year (35%) or four-year programs (42%).

Furthermore, 97% of participants graduated from high school on time — even if they did not go on to college. That's higher than the 91% of their peers who graduated but did not take part.

Data from the state Department of Elementary & Secondary Education also found that 89% of Black students who took part in those programs went on to college, along with 72% of participating Hispanic students.

But amid the success, one key finding came up repeatedly: Less than 2% of the state's high school students of color and only 1% of low-income students take part in the programs.

According to the report, the state estimates 3,650 students are taking part in early college programs this year, with an expected enrollment of nearly 15,000 by 2030.

It's a pace that MassINC research director Benjamin Forman said may be too modest.

"At the current pace of expansion, if we continue to serve it, will that be enough to meaningfully move the dial on post-secondary completion in Massachusetts? We don't think so," Forman said at the time.

If students struggle, the program offers multiple layers of wrap-around support, Coffey said.

During eighth grade, the program director and family engagement coordinator meet with students and families during the evenings and on weekends in community space. Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese translators are available.

Both Framingham and Milford high schools have coaches and advisers available to meet with students at least three days each week. The program also has its own tutors, who can assist students during free periods built into the schedule, and a weekly enrichment meeting, which brings Early College students together as a community within the school.

They also partner with a counseling agency to offer emotional support.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfurled, wellness sessions were added to the program, Coffey said.

"Folks are learning how to take care of themselves," she said. "COVID pushed everyone against the wall and we had to do to respond to what's happening."

Otlin believes one benefit of the program is that it helps families learn how to support their child when they get to college, saying it can level the playing field for first-generation students.

"Having someone in your corner who knows the game and has played the game successfully puts you at an advantage when you haven't played the game successfully and no one in your family has," said Otlin. "Just like we're building up our students, we're building up the family so they can play the critical role in this process really well, too."

Students who complete five college courses will have a semester of college done — a quarter of an associate degree — by high school graduation, said Otlin.

Avadanian, the Framingham High sophomore, said she was able to skip a grade of history, thanks to completing a college-level course in that subject.

"I can do more stuff in the future instead of getting stuck behind with all the required courses in high school," she said.

She said she was "excited for college and I'm more excited now." Avadanian is undecided about what she wants to study, but is leaning toward education.

"If I can explore more, I can get to know more about each thing," she said.

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